Mother to Son by Langston Hughes

Teacher Guide by Bridget Baudinet

Find this Common Core aligned Teacher Guide and more like it in our Middle School ELA Category!

Mother to Son Lesson Plans

Student Activities for Mother to Son Include:

Published in 1922, ”Mother to Son” was one of Langston Hughes’s earliest poems. Its simple language and powerful message make it both accessible and meaningful for middle grade students. While it captures the inspiring perseverance of an aging mother, it also hints at the struggles inherent in an unequal society. Ideal for teaching word choice, theme, and poetic structure, “Mother to Son” also pairs nicely with units on the Harlem Renaissance or African American literature.

Mother to Son Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Mother to Son TWIST Analysis

Copy Assignment

A great way to engage your students is through the creation of storyboards that examine Tone, Word Choice, Imagery, Style, and Theme. This activity is referred to with the acronym “TWIST”. In a TWIST, students focus on the close reading of poem to look deeper at the author’s meaning.

Using the full text of “Mother to Son” or just a few lines, students can depict, describe, and analyze the way poetic elements work together to create a central message or theme.

TWIST Example for Mother to Son



Grim yet determined: The speaker has struggled much in life, yet still pushes forward.


Hughes includes many words and phrases with negative connotations: tacks, splinters, boards torn up, no carpet, bare, dark, no light, kinder hard


“Life for me ain't been no crystal stair. It's had tacks in it and splinters, and boards torn up...” The staircase the speaker describes is an old, rickety, dangerous staircase, representing the difficulties of her life.


The simple dialect of the speaker suggests a life with limited educational access. The varied line lengths mirror the ups and downs of the staircase and the path of life.


Despite the difficulties of her life, the speaker keeps going. The central theme that this creates is the importance of persevering in the face of hardship.

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)

Student Instructions

Perform a TWIST analysis of a selection from "Mother to Son". Remember that TWIST stands for Tone, Word Choice, Imagery, Style, Theme.

  1. Click "Use this Template" from the assignment.
  2. Choose any combination of scenes, characters, items, and text to represent each letter of TWIST.
  3. Write a few sentences describing the importance or meaning of the images.
  4. Finalize images, edit, and proofread your work.
  5. Save and submit storyboard to assignment.

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

Copy Assignment

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Mother to Son Figurative Language

This activity allows students to break down the various components of the extended metaphor in ”Mother to Son”. As students read through each line, they will need to identify the figurative meanings behind Hughes’s word choices. Students should be able to cite a line from the poem and understand its literal meaning (as it pertains to the staircase) and its figurative meaning (as it pertains to the mother’s life). With this storyboard, students should choose 3-5 important lines from the text and depict their figurative meaning. Below each image, have students provide a brief explanation of the image they chose to represent.

Mother to Son Figurative Language

"Life for me ain't been no crystal stair"

Life has been difficult for the speaker. She has had to struggle and work hard to survive and improve her circumstances.

"It's had tacks in it/ and splinters"

The "staircase" of life has been filled with difficulties.The tacks and splinters represent hardships and moments that brought the mother pain. These could include working long hours, losing a job, dealing with illness, watching a loved one die, or many other difficulties.


The "bare" portion of the staircase again suggests difficulties. By isolating the word "bare" in its own line, Hughes suggests the mother was lonely or poor. She had no soft carpet of friends or money to bring her comfort or to ease the pain of her journey.

"And sometimes going in the dark/Where there ain't been no light"

The darkness represents hopelessness. When the speaker says there "ain't been no light", she suggests that there is no happy, bright spot in her life to bring her joy or give her hope in a brighter future.

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Mother to Son Ideas Web

Another way for students to study the poem’s figurative meaning is to explore multiple interpretations of Hughes’ symbolic language. While it is clear that the staircase in the poem represents life, the specific meaning of the “tacks”, “carpet”, “landings” etc. is left to the reader’s imagination. Have students build analytical skills by focusing on a single line and imagining several symbolic interpretations for it. The storyboard below provides an example.

Mother to Son Ideas Web

"It's had tacks in it"

  • The tacks could represent times she was in physical pain.

  • The tacks could symbolize emotional pain.

  • The tacks might represent obstacles that she had to avoid.

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Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was a well-known African American writer. He is celebrated as a powerful writer of the Harlem Renaissance, the artistic movement that brought about an explosion of African American art, music, and literature in the 1920s and 30s. Like most art produced as part of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes’s poems speak to the experience of black people in America. Some poems celebrate African American cultural heritage, while others lament their past enslavement and continued economic struggles. These socioeconomic struggles were particularly severe in America during the Jim Crow era before the Civil Rights Movement. “Mother to Son” builds on an understanding of the financial struggles facing many black families in the early 1900s. Written nearly 100 years ago, its message still resonates today.

Concrete Poetry

A concrete poem is one in which the structure of the poem (either physical or grammatical) reflects the content of the poem. Some concrete poems are nearly pictorial in appearance, with lines positioned to reflect a particular shape. Other poems may contain concrete elements such as creative spacing within or between lines to reflect pauses, distance, or emotional depth in the poem. “Mother to Son” contains several concrete elements through which Hughes connects the structure of the poem to the metaphor of the staircase and the difficult life it represents.

Essential Questions for Mother to Son

  1. How does Hughes use concrete elements to contribute to the meaning of his poem?
  2. What is the speaker’s tone in the poem?
  3. How does this poem relate to other art, literature, or music from the Harlem Renaissance?
  4. What is the role of figurative language in the poem?
  5. How does the main idea of this poem relate to our society today?

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•   (English) Mother to Son   •   (Español) Madre a Hijo   •   (Français) Mère à Fils   •   (Deutsch) Mutter zu Sohn   •   (Italiana) Madre a Figlio   •   (Nederlands) Moeder Naar Son   •   (Português) Mãe a Filho   •   (עברית) אמא אל Son   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) أم الى ابنها   •   (हिन्दी) माँ को बेटा   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Мать-сын   •   (Dansk) Mor til søn   •   (Svenska) Mamma Till Son   •   (Suomi) Äiti Son   •   (Norsk) Mor til Son   •   (Türkçe) Anne ve Oğul   •   (Polski) Matka do Syna   •   (Româna) Mama Fiului   •   (Ceština) Matka se Syna   •   (Slovenský) Matka na Syna   •   (Magyar) Anya Fia   •   (Hrvatski) Majka do Sina   •   (български) Майка на Син   •   (Lietuvos) Motina Sūnaus   •   (Slovenščina) Mati Sina   •   (Latvijas) Māte Dēlam   •   (eesti) Ema Pojale